Demanding More from NU Investment

April, 2018

Lincoln -- The 2018 Nebraska legislative session is over and the University of Nebraska budget escaped with only relatively minor cuts. The governor and several state senators had wanted much deeper reductions, given state government's bleak revenue outlook.

A question was tossed my way when I was in Lincoln during the session: as a person who once worked on such matters for many years, would I cut the NU budget?

The short answer is no, but I would demand more from the university in areas crucial to Nebraska's future. Let me explain.

A case can be made that Nebraska spends more on higher education compared to other states and, therefore, cutbacks might be in order, especially in times of state revenue shortfalls. But a case can also be made that Nebraska ranks high as a good place to live and that its overall educational system is among the top ten in the country.

I'd venture that there is some level of causality at work here, not just fortuitious correlations. Nebraska's investment in higher education may be somewhat high, but so are the returns.

Looking at the Nebraska economy, we see the Omaha and Lincoln urban areas doing well. I think it's reasonable for the university – UNL, UNO, and UNMC – to take a considerable measure of credit for it. The engineering and business colleges, the professional schools of medicine, dentistry, law, and pharmacy, and especially the departments in the arts and sciences that do the heavy intellectual lifting, should be recognized for their roles in this good fortune.

Rural Nebraska is another story, however. The agricultural sector is doing poorly and is responsible for the state's revenue woes. Which raises the question of the responsibility of the state's college of agriculture.

Of course it's not just Nebraska's ag economy that is suffering; the nation's whole farm belt is in crisis. So it's hardly fair to target one college for falling short, let alone single it out for budget cuts.

Rather, I believe, more should be demanded of this college, and of other such colleges of agriculture across the country at land-grant universities. What does it take to get the agricultural economy healthy again? This should be the burning question at both the Nebraska statehouse and at the university.

And is it even appropriate to think in terms of making Nebraska agriculture "healthy again"? The state's rural areas (and its towns and cities) have been depopulating for decades. Some say it is unavoidable and inevitable; others say it is the legacy of the ag economists who were the hand-maidens of those who would turn agriculture from a way of life for many into a business opportunity for few. I lean toward the latter explanation.

There is a way out. At last the spell of Earl Butz ("Get big or get out") is being broken by those who recognize the promise of new, emerging markets. See, for example, Harvesting Opportunity by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, which sees substantial local and regional market potential. The "feed the world" school of thought has also been dealt a blow by the NYT series on world obesity; to what end has American agriculture's "fencerow to fencerow" production been put? The answer to that does not bode well for the current Nebraska agricultural economy, but it may stimulate moves toward nutrition-based rather than calorie-based production, which would be good for all of us, here and abroad.

At a minimum, Nebraska legislators and taxpayers should be looking to the state's agriculture college and demanding a Plan B based on Nebraska's own comparative advantages of land, water, and human resources. Agronomists trying to squeeze another bushel of yield out of corn or Extension agents instructing farmers in the use of dicamba are not going to solve the sector's problems. In fact, they may worsen them. Bolder thinking is in order.

It's long past time not to slash away at the university's budget indiscriminately, but to demand more from our investment, especially in agriculture-related areas.